In China, they rule the streets. Dancing grannies can be seen in parks and plazas across the country, waving their hands to the blaring beats of EDM-infused pop hits, unfazed by smog, angry neighbors or traffic rules.
But Chinese square dancing (广场跳舞) is not just a convenient way for older people to socialize and exercise, it is an industry worth RMB 1 trillion. It is also sparking a wave of tech innovation aimed at a 120 million-strong population which have mostly been left out of the technological boom: The dancing aunties or “dama” (大妈), mostly comprised of female retirees born in the 1950s or 60s.
A great portion of the industry belongs to online retail. To complement their performance with costumes and props, many middle-aged dancing queens are pestering younger members of the family to teach them online shopping. Sales of square dancing-related items, such as loudspeakers and costumes, reportedly add up to a conservative estimate of RMB 25 million a month.
Companies are quick to respond to their needs, designing products such as “intelligent dancing solutions” – directional loudspeakers which limit sound to a certain area and mini tablets for the not so tech-savvy.
Young Fang Hui, CEO of Dafu (大福广场舞平板), designs these so-called “opera watchers.” He comes from the birthplace of square dancing in Jiamusi, Heilongjiang province, and has become an expert on the square dancing economy. His goal was to create a tablet simple enough for everyone to use.
“When my 80-plus-year-old grandmother took our tablet and saw a Shaoxing opera, it was my greatest sense of accomplishment,” Fang said.
But the biggest push is coming from apps such as Tangdou (糖豆), the “Tinder of square dancing.” Tangdou boasts 100 million users and has received US$ 20 million in its latest round of financing completed in October 2016. According to its CEO Zhang Yuan, the company owes its success to a deep obsession with dancing combined with the country’s explosion in smartphones.
Fang notes that the penetration rate of smartphones is surprisingly high among the middle-aged and aged Chinese. Many of them were drawn to social apps like WeChat by “chicken soup for the soul” articles about keeping fit and becoming successful.
The square dancing frenzy has enabled companies like Tangdou, Jiuai (就爱) and 99 to tap into the geriatric market by gathering them on their video/social media platform and turning it into a marketing channel. Healthcare products, financial products, real estate, travel: All of these industries are cashing in to the rhythm of square dancing by organizing competitions and other offline events.
One of the biggest beneficiaries of this model are instructors such as Meiju, AKA the Beyonce of Square-Dancing. The trend is a part of the internet stars or “wanghong” economy which has flooded China in recent years. Stars like Meiju earn money by endorsing products or setting up their own online shops.
“There are hundreds of square dancing wanghong now. Videos broadcasted by the most famous ones accumulate hundreds of millions of view,” said Fang.
But square dancing apps still find it hard to encourage a usually suspicious older generation to use online payments and increase user base. Despite their impressive presence, a huge portion of their audience is still out of reach. In a typical square dancing troupe, it is the leader who uses the app to check out new dancing moves and then simply teaches them to other members, Fang explained.
“One advantage of the square dance economy is the size of the market. The disadvantage is that their spending power is not strong; it is difficult to stir up their appetite for consumption,” said Fang.
He also noted that the older generation does want to be a part of the online economy – there is simply not enough products that fit them. Nevertheless, Chinese square dancers refuse to be the generation that tech forgot.